Community mourns Buddy Scotto, 91, praised as an ‘anchor’ of Carroll Gardens
Mr. Scotto’s death was reported over the weekend by several sources, including the Society of Old Brooklynites, Community Board 6 and the Scotto Funeral Home, a family business in which he was a third-generation funeral director.
Mike Racioppo, district leader of Community Board 6, called Buddy Scotto “a larger-than-life neighborhood leader and unofficial Mayor of Carroll Gardens who could never be ignored. At a time when many were leaving Brooklyn, including our cherished ‘South Brooklyn,’ he stayed and started civic, neighborhood, and political organizations that exist to this day. Once upon a time, he was even a community board member. He will be honored and remembered by people with far more stature than me, but I’m proud to have known him. There are many reading this message right now that I would’ve never met had it not been for Buddy.”
“Buddy was a highly regarded civic leader, community activist and lifetime member of the Society of Old Brooklynites,” wrote Theodore General, first vice president for that organization. “He was also the founder of the Carroll Gardens Neighborhood Association, the Gowanus Canal Development Corp. and board member of several community groups.”
The son of Pasquale (Patsy) and Rose Clemente Scotto, the founders of Scotto Funeral Home, Buddy was an alumnus of St. Stephen Grammar School and Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School. He was a graduate of the original St. Francis College, which was then located on Baltic and Butler streets, near the location of a Franciscan monastery.
John L. Heyer II, of Scotto & Heyer Funeral Directors, worked for Buddy Scotto since his youth, apprenticing and eventually becoming an owner after Buddy’s 2012 retirement. He recalled in a phone conversation on Saturday that Scotto’s grandparents had also owned and operated a funeral home before the establishment of Scotto Funeral Home in 1926.
Young Buddy Scotto served two tours of duty in the Korean conflict during the early 1950s, and retired from the U.S. Army with the rank of captain.
Heyer said, “When Buddy came back from Korea and then got married, he had wanted originally to move out to Long Island, because the family always had a summer home in Long Island. He wanted to buy a funeral home in Long Island and move his parents there as well. And his parents — his mom and dad — would not leave the old neighborhood!
“He did not want to leave his parents here, so instead he decided to stay in and help the community and the neighborhood. This was during a time when many people were leaving Carroll Gardens for the suburbs. He then started to help some of the young, politically active people, like Joe Bruno, Mike Pesce and Eileen Dugan. He was about 20 years older than them. He mentored them, and they founded the Carroll Gardens Association, the Independent Neighborhood Democrats, and they became not only community activists, but they also became politically active as a result.”
Joan Millman, who for 17 years represented District 52, including Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens, as a member of the State Assembly, said, “I must have met Buddy first in 1982. The Village Voice, I think, called him ‘Mr. Carroll Gardens.’
“When people were running to get out of Brooklyn, Buddy was one of the anchors, and he encouraged people to stay, and also work to make sure that the amenities that Carroll Gardens offered were not lost. And he worked with all levels of government — the City Council, the Assembly, the Senate, Congress.
“Buddy was the guy who always talked about affordable housing. And he talked about the Gowanus Canal endlessly, and about cleaning it up. He could talk your ear off. But he was passionate about it … You want to make sure you clean that site up and then develop it in the best way possible that supports the needs of the community. And that’s what Buddy was all about.”
Millman recalled, “When I first got elected, whenever there was a bill that came up for discussion, or that was going to be voted on, that had to do with the funeral business, I would get a copy and send it to Buddy. And I would say to him, ‘What do you think of this?’ And he would make little notes for me and send it back, which was really helpful. He knew his business, and he knew it well. He was just a genuine asset to the community in a lot of ways. There were political connections that he had, and professional connections, and religious. He was a real community leader, and the title of Mayor of Carroll Gardens was really applicable for him. No one’s held that title since.”
Millman added, “Buddy, to his credit, with a lot of younger guys in Carroll Gardens, formed the Independent Neighborhood Democrats, a political club that was in opposition to the so-called regular Democrats who ran the district, and they really didn’t have much to do with the younger generation. But the younger generation was not in favor of the war, and they wanted their elected officials to be more in touch with them. So Buddy, with a bunch of other young people like Mike Pesce and Joe Bruno, were instrumental in forming this club. And [the late] Eileen Dugan was a member of this club as well. And they all got their political start there.”
Buddy Scotto became active also in the organization that became the Eileen Dugan Senior Center. He was active in Sacred Hearts-St. Stephen’s parish, and also St. Mary Star of the Sea Church on Court Street. He was a member of Van Westerhout Cittadini Molesi Cultural Social Club.
The Hon. Michael Pesce, who retired in January 2020 as Justice of the State Supreme Court/Kings County, credits Buddy Scotto as a role model and as the one who got him started in politics with the spirit of public service to others.
“I saw Buddy from the very beginning as my ‘political godfather’ — I mean it in the traditional, Catholic, Christian way: Because, I was just an immigrant kid, fresh out of college, barely 10 years in this country, and I was still struggling with my English. Buddy was the one who basically dragged me out from my immigrant milieu, and got me involved with community. That involvement later translated into political activities, then translated into my election to the [NY State] Assembly in 1972. So, Buddy and his family were supportive throughout. Buddy was the one who taught me all about community involvement, and unselfishness, and availability to anyone who needs help with whatever sort. Buddy was the type of guy who would help anyone, regardless of political stripe, regardless of background, regardless of ethnicity, religion … he was almost non-pareil in terms of being a good person to anyone who needed help.
“I come from a background of a town in southern Italy where many immigrants from that town settled in Carroll Gardens — Mola di Bari. So people from my hometown — the immigrants — looked to Buddy, not just as an undertaker but someone to go to if you needed help. And Buddy was very helpful and supportive of the immigrant community in Carroll Gardens, especially those from my home town. But above all, he was supportive of my campaigns.
“He taught me unselfishness when dealing with individuals who needed help — with anything,” Pesce emphasized. “That’s what led me to open — not one, but two — community service offices, one in Brooklyn Heights and one in Carroll Gardens, to just help constituents, back in 1972 when that was almost unheard of! Politicians didn’t want to be bothered. They wanted political clubs. But Buddy Scotto said, ‘You have to do this!’ And I did.”
Judge Pesce recalled an anecdote in which then-Vice President Nelson Rockefeller persuaded Scotto to switch his political party. The vice president asked Scotto what it would take to make him a Republican, and got the reply: “I need the Gowanus Canal cleaned up.”
“To Buddy, his primary objective was his community. He didn’t care what political party, what capital letter you use to describe his politics.”
Funeral director and former partner John Heyer said that, as an Italian-American youth, Buddy Scotto had experienced immense prejudice. The Van Westerhout Cittadini Molesi Cultural Social Club provided a place where the new Italian community could relax and be accepted. The club was established in 1960, when a group of teens from Mola di Bari decided they needed a center where they could hang out together without being bullied, as the Italian youths whose parents worked the docks were often ostracized.
The club is named for Niccolò Van Westerhout, a 19th-century composer whose Flemish musical family emigrated to Mola. A June 2016 Brooklyn Eagle article covered the unveiling of a plaque inside Sacred Hearts-St. Stephen’s Church as part of that parish’s 150th anniversary of serving the Italian immigrant community, and the recognition of the Molese social club, which helped immigrants build new lives here.
Judge Pesce joked that he was almost forced to join, because his brother wanted to become the club’s first president. And, 60 years later, Mike Pesce is still a founding member. He credits Buddy Scotto’s wisdom with the club’s mission and goals.
Judge Pesce believes “the club then began to become aware — more than other immigrant clubs — of the community at large, the rest of Brooklyn and the rest of the city, rather than be enclosed within its own physical clubhouse on Summit Steet. And we began to come out of the cocoon, if you will, and began to realize that there’s a bigger world out here, and we should be more active in the bigger world. And I kind of led the way, and others after me continued to be active, and we still are. We’re still doing Thanksgiving Dinners, giveaways and fundraising, all to help the community at large, including those who have not reached the level here that we have.”
Joan Millman recalled that, during her time as an assemblymember, she assisted in a situation involving a resident of a group home on Tiffany Place for people with disabilities. One of the long-term residents died without family. The other residents wanted to give him a good sendoff but lacked the money to do so.
“First thing I did was call Buddy Scotto and explained the situation to him,” she recalled. “And Buddy did the whole thing — gratis. All the disabled adults got into the little van and went from Tiffany Place to Sacred Hearts. And there was a Mass there. And he arranged for the burial. You knew in a pinch that Buddy would come through for you. And he gave peace to those other people. The guy had a fine sendoff.
“Every Memorial Day there’s always an event in Carroll Park for the veterans. And Buddy was a veteran, and very proud of the fact that he was a veteran. And the merchants — Joan D’Amico [Coffee] Mazzone [Hardware], and several of the others would organize this event. And Buddy was always front and center, wanting to be involved in it.”
On the occasion of Scotto’s 90th birthday, U.S. Rep. Nydia Velazquez saluted Buddy Scotto for his advocacy work in the community. That speech, an excerpt of which follows, can be found in the Congressional Record.
“On the very special occasion of his 90th birthday this year, I would like to thank Buddy for everything he has done and continues to do for the Carroll Gardens community. The neighborhood would not be the same without him.”
Heyer said of his longtime mentor, “While I’m not blood-related, I had the fortunate experience to be raised in Buddy Scotto’s shadow. And it was a wonderful place to be raised, because he gave me a great example of what it meant to be a funeral director — now that I am the owner of Scotto Funeral Home, continuing the legacy. He also taught me what it meant to be an Italian-American, a community activist, a Catholic; and how all four of those things are all tied together, as living for another person, being there for other people — which is what Buddy was all about.”
“He had a unique skill set,” said Millman. “He really did. What he managed to do — to save a community, to service the people in the community, whether they were the people in Carroll Gardens or people in Brooklyn Heights. He was just well-known all over. I think his skill set was suited to what he did. He made the choice for himself. When you get to be an elected official, there are lots of pulls on you. And you can’t really focus always on the things you want to do that you do best. He had lots of skills and very well-equipped to do a lot of things. But I think the choices he made were the best ones for him.”
A funeral Mass was scheduled for this Monday, Sept. 14, at 10 a.m., at the Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, at Mott and Prince streets in Manhattan. Burial will be at a family plot in The Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.
Scotto & Heyer Funeral Directors, in conjunction with Buddy’s sister Theresa and daughter, Debra, will also hold a memorial service for Buddy at Sacred Hearts-St. Stephen’s Church on Saturday, November 7, at noon, thus continuing a long neighborhood tradition, held on the first Saturday of November each year, of honoring the families of loved ones who had been waked and buried from Scotto Funeral Directors over the years.
In addition to his sister, Theresa, survivors include daughter Debra and son Mark, and several grandchildren. Memorial donations can be made to the Carroll Gardens Association.
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